The Cosmic Scorpion Evident in Ancient Cultures
Scorpions have inhabited the Earth for over 400 million years. They were one of the first seabed evolved creatures to climb out of oceans onto land. Although older than the dinosaurs and despite many species, there has been small change to their basic form over this vast time. Their mysterious appearance is deeply entangled in human culture and known for symbolizing danger, eroticism, the hidden and clandestine. A Roman war-machine, a yoga posture, and a star constellation take their name from this predatory arachnid. Like snakes and insects, the meaning of scorpions remains fairly constant across cultural boundaries and this has been the case with its constellated counterpart as well.
Scorpius as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London (circa 1825). (Public Domain)
Astral Visions of the Scorpius Constellation
The Scorpius constellation belongs to a star group known as the Scorpius-Centaurus Association, stars which share a common space motion. This means that the shape of this star pattern, as viewed from Earth, would have remained reasonably constant for at least a million years. The Scorpius constellation has been an object of starwatching for millennia. More importantly, different human groups distanced by time and place have seen a scorpion in these stars. The ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian heritage of the celestial scorpion, which features in mythologies, seems to have come from Mesopotamian astronomers who named Scorpius zuqaqipu (‘scorpion’). However, the image of Scorpius extended far beyond the Near East and Mediterranean regions into different cultural settings.
Remarkably, to the indigenous Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land in Australia, Scorpius was identified as a scorpion and named Bundungu. Both the Aztecs and Maya are known to have had scorpion constellations. Although with the former this may have referenced Ursa Major, it is clear that the Maya saw a celestial scorpion in the Scorpius stars. The ancient Chinese had a complex scorpion mythology with astral associations. An ancient temple-observatory known as Ming T’ang (‘Hall of Light’) was recorded as having existed in the early historic period. China’s first culture, education and government have been ascribed to this temple-observatory. Following a proposal that Chinese pictographic characters descend from Neolithic calendar symbols, it has been suggested that Ming T’ang developed from worshipping the scorpion.
Scorpion from Arabic Kitab al-Bulhan or Book of Wonders (late 14thCentury) (Public Domain)
According to one researcher, the Chén (辰) character represents a scorpion in striking position as seen in profile.
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Alistair Coombs studied religion and archaeology (Silk Route) at the School of Oriental and African Studies and obtains his PhD at the University of Kent in 2019. His work on prehistoric astronomy has been presented on the BBC, MSN and Science Illustrated.
Top Image: (Image: ©Alistair Coombs. Scorpius constellation Arote/AdobeStock;Deriv.)